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In the News, Neuroscience, NIH, Stanford News

NIH announces focus of funding for BRAIN initiative

NIH announces focus of funding for BRAIN initiative

Monday was a big day for President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative -  a ten-year, 100-million dollar research plan designed to advance technologies related to mapping and understanding how the human brain works. Since the initiative was announced in April, several aspects of brain function have been identified as potential focal points for the project.

Now, the National Institutes of Health has said they will direct their $40 million budget for the BRAIN Initiative towards research that investigates multi-cellular brain circuits and systems. This announcement was made yesterday, after the NIH director approved the research proposal by the BRAIN Working Group.

From a New York Times story:

Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the N.I.H., who accepted the report and its recommendations, said that he had asked the group, led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and Bill Newsome of Stanford, to think big, and that it would be the job of the N.I.H. to make actual spending decisions.

Dr. Bargmann agreed that the overall goal of figuring out “how circuits in the brain generate complex thoughts and behavior” was not something to be tackled with the $40 million that the N.I.H. hopes to have for 2014.

“You can’t do all of that in year one, you can’t do all of that with $40 million, and you can’t do all of that at N.I.H. either,” she said.

The report recommends that the N.I.H.’s immediate goals should be to develop new tools to investigate both animal and human brains and to accomplish basic, but so far elusive, goals like determining how many different types of neurons there are, what they do and how to study them. It proposed nine high-priority research areas, all of which could take many years and involve other agencies and institutions. But the report, said Dr. Collins, is “a great blueprint for getting started.”

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project: Aiming to understand how the brain worksBrain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiativesCo-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience instituteExperts weigh in on the new BRAIN Initiative and A federal push to further brain research

NIH, Research, Stanford News

Stanford team awarded NIH Human Microbiome Project grant

Stanford team awarded NIH Human Microbiome Project grant

As part of the second phase of the Human Microbiome Project, begun in 2007, the National Institutes of Health has awarded three grants for research projects over the next three years, and Stanford researchers are among the recipients.

A release notes that the trillions of microbes living on skin and other locations of the body constitute a normal human microbiome, and that this phase of the project funds research examining how and why alteration of it at various body sites promotes diseases:

Of the three projects, one joint project by research teams between Stanford University and Washington University in St. Louis will examine the microbes in the gut and nose and determine how alteration in certain microorganisms (for example during viral infections) may trigger the development of diseases such as diabetes. They will use several ‘omics’ approaches, including genomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics to follow the dynamic changes in the microbiome and in the host over time.

Geneticist Michael Snyder, PhD, is a principal investigator of the Stanford/Washington University study.

Previously: ‘Omics’ profiling coming soon to a doctor’s office near you?Cultivating the human microbiomeContemplating how our human microbiome influences personal health and Top 10 1:2:1 podcasts for 2012

In the News, Neuroscience, NIH, Stanford News

BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project: Aiming to understand how the brain works

BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project: Aiming to understand how the brain works

Less than four months ago, Stanford neurologist William Newsome, PhD, received a phone call that could alter the next decade of his professional career. Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health, called to tell Newsome that President Barack Obama wanted him to co-chair a ten-year project designed to advance our understanding of the brain and the technologies used to investigate it.

The project is called the BRAIN Initiative, and Newsome and co-chair Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann, PhD, of The Rockefeller University, have an ambitious research plan for the next ten years. Yesterday in Nature, Alison Abbott explained how the BRAIN Initiative and the European Commission’s Human Brain Project are similar, and how the aims of these projects span three major areas of neuroscience: measuring the brain, mapping it, and understanding how it works. She wrote:

Although the aims of the two projects differ, both are, in effect, bold bids for the neuroscientist’s ultimate challenge: to work out exactly how the billions of neurons and trillions of connections, or synapses, in the human brain organize themselves into working neural circuits that allow us to fall in love, go to war, solve mathematical theorems or write poetry. What’s more, researchers want to understand the ways in which brain circuitry changes — through the constant growth and retreat of synapses — as life rolls by.

Reaching this goal will require innovative new technologies, ranging from nanotechnologies to genetics to optics, that can capture the electrical activity coursing through neurons, prod those neurons to find out what they do, map the underlying anatomical circuits in fine detail and process the exabytes of information all this work will spit out. “Think about it,” says neuroscientist Konrad Kording of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. “The human brain produces in 30 seconds as much data as the Hubble Space Telescope has produced in its lifetime.”

The goals of these projects are daunting. But to Newsome, as Abbot explains, the ultimate objective isn’t to unlock every mystery of the brain within ten years – it’s to navigate research so that someday we can.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiativesCo-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience instituteExperts weigh in on the new BRAIN Initiative and A federal push to further brain research

In the News, NIH, Science, Science Policy

Senate proposes to increase NIH’s budget in 2014

Senate proposes to increase NIH's budget in 2014

During this time of federal budget woes, it’s refreshing to get at least a little good news on the topic. As reported by Nature’s newsblog yesterday, a U.S. Senate subcommittee has recommended that the National Institutes of Health’s budget be upped in 2014, from just over $29 billion to around $31 billion. Meredith Wadman writes:

…The increase would include $84 million new dollars for Alzheimer’s disease research at NIH’s National Institute on Aging and $40 million for the much-watched Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative announced by the White House in April.

The Senate panel would also quintuple, to $50 million, funding for the Cures Acceleration Network, an effort by NIH’s new translational medicine centre to speed bench discoveries to the bedside. And the bill would extend to other agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services a requirement that is now operative only at NIH: that researchers deposit their taxpayer-funded manuscripts in a publicly accessible database.

Though, as Wadman writes, these budget plans are “far from a done deal,” the Senate’s support for the agency is encouraging:

Senator Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the full committee, made it clear at a press event yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, that she plans to go to the mat for NIH, which under recent sequester cuts lost $1.55 billion of its original 2013 budget of $30.8 billion.  Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s transfer of $173 million in NIH 2013 funds to other agencies in the department added to the damage.

“We want to say ‘no’ to the slash and crash of reckless cuts to American biomedical research,” she declared against a backdrop of white-coated medical researchers who had gathered to emphasize the impact of sequestration on NIH-funded scientists.

Previously: NIH director on scaring young scientists with budget cuts: “If they go away, they won’t come back”, Sequestration hits the NIH – fewer new grants, smaller budgets,
NIH director polls Twitter for real-world responses to budget cutbacks, A federal push to further brain research and As budget sequester nears, a call for Congress to protect funding for scientific and medical research

NIH, Research, Videos

How structural biology provides insight into health and disease

How structural biology provides insight into health and disease

Proteins in our bodies make up our skin and other tissues and perform a number of functions, including carrying oxygen in our blood and helping our muscles move. This recently posted National Institute of General Medical Sciences video takes a closer look at research efforts aimed at better understanding the role of proteins in the body and explores how scientists are using these insights to develop new medications, materials and diagnostic procedures.

Previously: New insights into protein folding could aid in developing therapies for neurodegenerative diseases

NIH, Research

NIH experiments with crowdsourcing to spur therapeutic development

Drug discovery is time-consuming and expensive, and failure is a strong possibility. To accelerate the therapeutic development process, the National Institutes of Health recently launched a program pairing researchers with a selection of pharmaceutical industry compounds, which proved to be ineffective for the specific use they were developed for, to determine if the drugs are useful in treating other conditions.

Today, the NIH awarded $12.7 million to nine academic research groups to reexamine pharmaceutical industry compounds to treat eight disease areas, including Alzheimer’s disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and schizophrenia. Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the NIH, wrote on his blog:

With this approach, we are hopeful that we can give these compounds a second chance, while making important discoveries for several diseases.

I am very excited about this pilot program for several reasons. As part of the design of the program, NIH developed template agreements to streamline the legal and administrative process for academic-industry collaboration—and already it’s clear that that strategy is saving months if not years of negotiations. In addition, this is our first experiment with “crowdsourcing” of therapeutic opportunities—giving the entire biomedical community access to highly active compounds and related data, and enabling anyone to make new connections to disease. I expect this model to yield some great science, and I’m optimistic it will also speed the development of new drugs to patients.

Previously: Why drug development is time consuming and expensive (hint: it’s hard)
Photo by Ano Lobb

Complementary Medicine, NIH, Nutrition, Public Health

A web-based tool to search ingredient information for dietary supplements

A web-based tool to search ingredient information for dietary supplements

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than half of adults in the United States regularly take some sort of dietary supplement, such as vitamins or herbal remedies.

In an effort to help Americans and researchers easily find product and ingredient information for dietary supplements, the National Institutes of Health launched the Dietary Supplement Label Database today.

The database contains information on about 17,000 dietary supplements, and developers plan to update it regularly to expand its listing to include the more than 55,000 commercial products available for purchase in the U.S. The database can also be accessed on mobile devices using the My Dietary Supplements (MyDS) app.

Paul Coates, PhD, director of the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, commented on how the database will benefit researchers and the public in a release:

This database will be of great value to many diverse groups of people, including nutrition researchers, healthcare providers, consumers, and others. For example, research scientists might use the Dietary Supplement Label Database to determine total nutrient intakes from food and supplements in populations they study.

Features of the database include:

  • Quick Search: Search for any ingredient or specific text on a label.
  • Search for Dietary Ingredients: An alphabetical list of ingredients is also provided.
  • Search for Specific Products: An alphabetical list of products is also provided.
  • Browse Contact Information: Search by supplement manufacturer or distributor.
  • Advanced Search: Provides options for expanding a search by using a combination of search options including dietary ingredient, product/brand name, health-related claims, and label statements.

Previously: NIH hosts Facebook chat on science and safety of herbal supplements, Caution advised for cancer patients who take herbal supplements, Roughly 9 percent of U.S. moms give infants herbal supplements and Older adults increasingly turning to complementary medicine
Photo by Lauren Silverman

Complementary Medicine, NIH, Public Health, Public Safety

NIH hosts Facebook chat on science and safety of herbal supplements

Herbal supplements have grown in popularity over the past few years as people turn to natural remedies hoping to lose weight, reduce arthritis symptoms, relieve depression or treat a range of other health conditions. But recent studies and a Congressional investigation have shown that such products can contain trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, or may cause dangerous side effects when mixed with certain medications.

To answer questions about contaminants or potentially harmful side effects of herbal remedies, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health is hosting a Facebook chat about the science and safety of herbal supplements. The chat will be held on Thursday at 12 noon Pacific Time.

Joining the conversation will be Craig Hopp, PhD, a program officer at NCCAM involved in ensuring products are safely and properly characterized, and John Williamson, PhD, who works with Hopp in overseeing the portfolio of grants relating to natural products and ethnomedicine. In addition to fielding questions, Hopp and Williamson will share information from agency’s Herbs at a Glance series, which is now available for download as an eBook.

Previously: Caution advised for cancer patients who take herbal supplements and Roughly 9 percent of U.S. moms give infants herbal supplements
Photo by thegarethwiscombe

Ethics, NIH, Patient Care, Pediatrics, Research, Science Policy

Bioethicists say criticisms of preemie oxygen study could have “chilling effect” on clinical research

Bioethicists say criticisms of preemie oxygen study could have “chilling effect” on clinical research

Thanks to a public outcry that included objections from bioethics experts from across the country, the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) has decided to suspend sanctions it imposed earlier this year on a study of blood oxygen levels used to treat premature infants. The OHRP’s sanctions, issued in March, sharply criticized the study’s leaders for not providing the infants’ parents with adequate information about the risks of the trial. But many bioethics experts disagreed with the OHRP’s assessment of the situation.

Last week, a group of more than 40 of the country’s top bioethicists, including two at Stanford, sent a letter to OHRP stating that the sanctions could have a chilling effect on much-needed clinical research. In a highly unusual action, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health, worked with two colleagues to write a similarly critical letter that said, in part:

This controversy has alarmed some of the parents of infants who were in the study, confused the biomedical research community, and befuddled IRBs. Several other studies seeking new insights to improve care for these vulnerable infants have been put on hold as the field tries to understand the OHRP findings.

The two letters appear online today in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and constitute a remarkably intense criticism of the OHRP, the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for overseeing the safety and well-being of human research subjects.

I’ve been following the developing story with the help of Stanford bioethicist David Magnus, PhD, who was one of the writers of the bioethicists’ letter. Last week, before the agency revised its stance, Magnus summarized what the bioethics community found objectionable about the OHRP’s sanctions: “They believe in an absolute interpretation of risk,” he said. The agency’s risk assessment was based “not [on] what kids who are actually sick would be exposed to, but what a healthy child would be exposed to.” Healthy babies born at term face much lower risks of severe eye disease, neurological damage and death than the babies in the study – but the tiny preemies in the study weren’t healthy term infants, and were not placed at additional risk, the bioethicists assert, because of their participation in the study.

The tussle has a complex back story that involves 1,300 fragile premature infants, their parents, 23 academic medical centers and an important piece of paperwork.

Continue Reading »

In the News, NIH, Research, Science

NIH director on scaring young scientists with budget cuts: “If they go away, they won’t come back”

NIH director on scaring young scientists with budget cuts: "If they go away, they won't come back"

Science Insider took another look yesterday at the effects of the budget sequestration on research. After describing the potential harms of the NIH’s recently announced 5 percent budget cut - “part of a larger pattern of declining funding over the past decade” – reporter Jocelyn Kaiser points out another troubling aspect of sequestration:

NIH leaders say that the sequester’s most severe effect is the chilling message it sends to young scientists. In testimony last week, [NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD,] quoted a former student who is finishing a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s seen her role models struggle with funding. “I can’t erase the fear that this is my future,” Collins quoted her writing.

“We’re putting an entire generation of U.S. scientists at risk,” Collins warned. “If they go away, they won’t come back.”

Previously: Sequestration hits the NIH – fewer new grants, smaller budgets, NIH director polls Twitter for real-world responses to budget cutbacks and As budget sequester nears, a call for Congress to protect funding for scientific and medical research

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